The beginning of a new week means just a few days are left in our 7 days of 78s…and that a holiday weekend is in sight! Just in case you were afraid your Monday might lack a little flavor, we have a dash of Memphis hot sauce to add to it. Trust us, it cooks.
We’ve heard that when you’re in Memphis, every night is like the end of the world. After our last full day there, which we packed with a marathon three recordings, we’re pretty sure we know what that means. The Bo-Keys and Percy Wiggins were our final shoot of the day, and we arrived bone-weary and excited beyond belief. A splendidly shabby room packed with incredible musicians, the dark Memphis night for a backdrop, and a bold, old-school, no-holds barred sound that challenged our mic and carved itself into a perfect record.
Today is a Sunday afternoon with an agenda. It seeks to usher us into a real Autumn for the first time since the months of strange and unseasonable weather began.
Today the sky is powdery and sunny and the air is quick and brisk; the experience of being out in it is haunting and energizing.
Who are we to argue with such a Fall day? It demands a song to match its mood. So Arborea’s flipside track “Red Bird” is the perfect song for this afternoon. We recorded with the duo on a sun-cooked hotel porch in rural Pennsylvania in August, but it was always meant to be a song for a more solemn season.
In the spirit of the freewheelin’ freedom that comes with the weekend, today feels like the perfect day to share Ella Mae Bowen’s rockin’ flipside “Heart Locked Out.”
We recorded with Ella Mae in the house in Nashville that inspired her songwriting, and we felt so freewheelin’ that day that we set up on the staircase instead of in a room. Her voice and her presence were bright and strong. And when she sang, she turned the excitement of youth into something beautiful and vital we can all understand.
Our second day in our week of giving thanks recalls another week not too long ago when we felt very fortunate. Just after returning from our first recording trip to the South, The 78 Project was invited to participate in IFP’s Independent Film Week in New York as part of the Spotlight on Documentaries. We were so honored, and we wanted to do something special as a way of showing our appreciation. So we invited our dear friend Timmy Mislock (The Antlers, Abandoned Lighthouse) to record a 78 with us during our screening time at the conference. Timmy sang “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” for a rapt audience of filmmakers and industry and a few invited friends. And we played it back for everyone right there in the room!
“Red River Valley” is one of those songs for which everyone has their own story. It has at least a dozen claimed origins – as many as the regions the Valley touches and then some – and everyone who knows the song, knows it from a different source. An emotional scene in a movie, a family who sang it together, a battered LP bought at a yard sale, a childhood school music class. The common thread being that wherever the song is heard first, it strikes a chord and takes on a personal meaning. Because like so many songs about a place, it is actually about the people in it. It can be sung by a lone cowboy in a secluded mountain valley, or as a duet in a New York apartment. Love and loss are the same everywhere.
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After listening to it together with them in the room, and again at home as we prepared to post it, Lisa and Joe’s Flipside song continues to amaze. “Little Bird” – which Lisa wrote and Joe produced the album version of – is a song of metaphors and images, complex in its design, but simple and perfect in its emotion. And their performance of it is simple and perfect in its emotion to match.
This past week we watched a storm devastate our city. We felt the weight of the sky bearing down on us, reminding us that in some ways we are powerless. During the days after the winds died down, we spent almost all of our time feeling thankful that we had our lives and our loved ones, despite what was lost.
It was a reminder that the ways we feel and express our gratitude for life must be purposeful and can be grand.
We can gather in a place where the roof is high enough so that the weight of the world doesn’t sit directly on our heads and shoulders. And we can fill that high ceiling with song to show that we have the power of grace to return to the sky. As Adam Arcuragi did this past Spring in a chapel in Harlem when we met him there to record. His message of gratitude for life gives a perfect sense of calm in this week of uncertainty.
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There are things that the Presto seems to know inherently, surprising and wonderful things that pop out of our recordings when we play them back. The tapping of a foot on a floorboard, the chirping of a bird filtered through glass, the high praise-pitch of a fife brightly bouncing down a dark alley.
The Wandering assembled late one May night on the concrete behind Joe’s Pub in New York to play the classic gospel “Glory, Glory,” the five members of the Memphis group carefully shuffling themselves around to mix the sounds. Luther Dickinson, Valerie June, Shannon McNally and Amy LaVere each found their place, and the voices and instruments mixed beautifully as it all came together. Everywhere Shardé Thomas stood, however, the Presto seemed to hear her fife particularly. It’s the fife that her grandfather, the great Othar Turner, made with his own hands. And it was almost as if the Presto knew that sound, like the voice of an old friend carrying across a room.
It reminded us that the fife and the Presto both had lives before we were born, have a history we can only imagine, might have known each other in another life as contemporaries.
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As summer drifts away in a shimmery breeze, it’s hard to remember what it felt like to be truly cold in the winter months. But listening back to the recordings we made in February with Valerie June we were instantly reminded of the chillness in the air that made the warmth in her performance so especially lovely.
Valerie chose “Happy or Lonesome” to pay tribute to a performer from the past who might just be her namesake. But as she sang her long-distance longing with such a hopeful tone, we had to wonder if she had Memphis on her mind, too.
Valerie is effervescent when she plays a happy song, so buoyant and free that it fills you with a heady happiness to hear her. For her flipside she chose a love song, “Raindance” – maybe to offset the murder ballad she’d done earlier in honor of Valentines Day – but definitely to bring a little light to the dark winter evening.